Apple unveils $2B plans for Irish and Danish data centers

Apple is set to spend €1.7 billion ($1.93 billion) on two new European data centers, one in Ireland and one in Denmark.

The Galway and Jutland data centers will each measure 166,000 square meters and will, in line with Apple’s other data facilities, be powered entirely by clean, renewable energy. They are expected to go online in 2017, handling data for iTunes, the App Store, iMessage, Maps and Siri.

“We’re excited to spur green industry growth in Ireland and Denmark and develop energy systems that take advantage of their strong wind resources,” [company]Apple[/company] Environmental Initiatives vice-president Lisa Jackson said in a statement. Apple CEO Tim Cook described the initiative as “Apple’s biggest project in Europe to date.”

The company said it will embark on a native tree-planting exercise to accompany the construction of its Irish data center, which will occupy land that was previously used for non-native trees. Meanwhile, excess heat from the Danish facility will be siphoned off to warm neighboring homes.

Apart from green credentials and the hundreds of jobs that will accompany the construction and operation of the new data centers, the sites will of course also help Apple keep Europeans’ data in Europe. With widespread concerns over the privacy implications of using U.S. services, particularly in the enterprise sector that Apple is so keenly courting, this is no minor factor.

If Apple ever launches a Spotify competitor, the new facilities will also prove helpful in supporting all that streaming.

The development of Apple’s new European data centers had been rumored for some time, with Eemshaven in the Netherlands (the site of a major new Google facility) also having been touted as a potential location.

Amazon to power cloud with wind farm in Indiana

Following Amazon’s quiet commitment to use 100 percent clean energy for its AWS cloud, on Tuesday Amazon announced that it will support the construction and operation of a wind farm in Benton County, Indiana, which will provide power for its data centers. While Google, Facebook, and Apple have been investing in clean power for data centers for awhile, Amazon has moved more slowly and been more quiet when it comes to how it planned to incorporate clean power into its energy infrastructure mix.

These are the first actual energy infrastructure details I’ve heard so far. Amazon says Pattern Energy Group will develop a 150 MW wind farm, which will provide enough power for about 46,000 average American homes. The wind farm — dubbed the Amazon Web Services Wind Farm — will be operational as early as January 2016.

Wind turbines in Hawaii

Wind turbines in Hawaii

To put this in context, 150 MW is a small contribution to Amazon’s overall energy needs for its AWS cloud. But that amount of power could support a data center or two (or even three), depending on the size of the data centers. Apple’s 50 MW of onsite clean energy in North Carolina fully supports its large data center in the region.

Large wind turbine projects are one of the lowest cost sources of clean energy in the U.S., and can also be competitive with cheap fossil fuel plants, like new natural gas plants. The other increasingly common large scale clean power option is utility-scale solar panel farms.

Wind farms can cost as low 3 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, in windy regions like the interior of the U.S., according to the American Wind Energy Association. Amazon didn’t disclose the financial details of its power agreement.

The Topaz solar farm.

The Topaz solar farm outside of San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Generally companies that want to buy large amounts of clean power from a new power plant, will make a “power purchase agreement” deal with the developer to buy the power from the project at a low cost over the course of 25 or so years. The developer can then use the contract with the power purchaser to get the project built.

Google has been announcing these types of clean power purchase agreement deals for years. Earlier this month Google announced that it was making a $76 million investment in a 300 MW wind project in Beaver County, Oklahoma, that is expected to be finished in late summer 2015. A week before that Google announced an $80 million investment in a solar project in Utah. Google has spent over a billion dollars on clean energy projects over the years.

This news from Amazon indicates that the cloud leader will indeed attempt to meet its commitment for 100 percent clean power for its cloud infrastructure. In recent years Greenpeace has targeted Amazon as being a slow mover when it comes to clean power for data centers.

Apple's solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

If you’re interested in clean power and data centers check out these stories:

 

 

 

SoftBank backs high-altitude wind startup Altaeros

Japanese telecom giant SoftBank is investing $7 million in startup Altaeros Energies, which has developed a helium-filled wind turbine that looks like a small blimp and floats more than a thousand feet up in the air, generating clean energy. Softbank’s CEO Masayoshi Son, who is the richest man in Japan, has become increasingly interested in clean and efficient energy technologies, and Japan’s development of new energy systems, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The idea behind high-altitude wind turbines is that winds between 1,000 and 2,000 feet off the ground can be a lot stronger than winds closer to the ground. Altaeros’ turbine is supposed to be able to generate more than twice the energy of the same size of turbine mounted on a traditional wind tower. A long cable connects Altaeros’ turbine, called the “Buoyant Airborne Turbine” or BAT, to the ground and transmits the energy.

Altaeros

The four-year-old company — which was spun out of MIT and is based in Somerville, Massachusetts (out of Greentown Labs) — has been working on installing its first turbine, for a pilot project, in Fairbanks, Alaska. The team expects to launch the turbine by the end of 2015, and the project seems to have been delayed a bit due to permit issues. The Alaska Energy Authority will monitor the project and gave Altaeros a grant to help support it.

Alaska has some of the highest electricity rates in the U.S., and in certain environments, particularly remote locations, the Altaeros turbine can be less expensive, and quicker, to install and operate. The turbine can be shipped in a standard shipping container, and doesn’t need the same type of infrastructure that a traditional wind turbine needs.

The ease of installation could make the tech a good candidate for disaster zones, oil and gas mining operations, islands and other places where electricity is expensive and difficult to access. Softbank’s Son, in a press release, called the turbine a “promising renewable energy solution for remote islands and locations in Japan and the Asia?Pacific region.”

Altaeros

At the same time, though, at $0.18 per kilowatt-hour, Altaeros’ energy tech is substantially more expensive on a per–kilowatt hour basis than standard wind turbines. In some windy regions, large standard wind turbines can be deployed at scale for $0.04 to $0.05 per kilowatt hour.

But in addition to the clean energy benefits, the company’s turbine can also be used to launch communications tech, or surveillance tech, high up into the air. So the turbine could end up acting like a wireless hotspot. That in particular could have made it attractive to SoftBank, which runs the third-largest wireless carrier in Japan and bought Sprint last year.

Companies and researchers have been trying to crack the code for high-altitude wind for years, but it’s been difficult. Check out this article for more potential hurdles that Altaeros’ turbine faces.

Altaeros

Startup Makani Power has been working on high-altitude wind tech, too, but with a very different design. Its wind turbine operates more like a kite and is attached to a long tether and rotates high off the ground. Google’s secretive moonshot lab Google X bought Makani in 2013. KiteGen is another high altitude wind startup based in Italy; NASA has a team working on this technology as well.

The investment from SoftBank is Altaeros’ Series A round. Most of the startup’s previous funds have come from grants and prizes from organizations like from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the California Energy Commission. Ratan Tata, the former chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, has also funded Altaeros.

Whether Altaeros’ unusual floating turbine can play an important part in Japan’s energy transition remains to be seen. In the wake of Fukushima, the Japanese government looked to phase out nuclear energy and idled the country’s nuclear plants.

But nuclear made up 60 percent of Japan’s energy generation, and it’s a carbon emissions–free energy source. Japan has since said it will miss its greenhouse gas reduction targets because its power companies have replaced the lost nuclear energy with thermal energy, which uses fuel.

Solar panels being installed on a roof in Japan.

Solar panels being installed on a roof in Japan.

Idling the plants was a controversial move. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now looking to restart some of the idled nuclear plants. But even if that happens, Japan still has very high clean power targets. SoftBank’s Son has proposed that Japan replace all of its nuclear energy with clean power, which would be a very aggressive target.

SoftBank has developed a subsidiary to invest and develop clean energy projects in Japan called SB Energy, as well as a foundation that does clean energy policy research and lobbying. SB Energy is currently developing a variety of large solar and wind plants in Japan, exploring a wind-power project in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and has even reportedly been interested in developing solar in India.

Recently SoftBank also launched SB Power, a subsidiary to sell electricity to corporate users, using mostly energy from its solar plants. Japan is reforming its energy sector and opening it up to competition.

Images courtesy of Altaeros and CoCreatr, Flickr Creative Commons.

Updated at 8:15AM, December 5th to correct that Altaeros works out of Greentown Labs in Somerville, MA, not Cambridge.

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